Necropotence and Yawgmoth's Bargain are some of the most broken cards in history. The free conversion of life to cards is unbelievably powerful. Recognizing this, Wizards stopped printing cards that enabled such shenanigans.
Tendrils is a deck that uses Ad Nauseam to draw a bunch of fast mana and tutors, casting a flurry of spells ending in Tendrils of Agony. It does this, usually, by the second or third turn. This is the first of two articles I intend to write about Tendrils; in this article, I'm going to outline potential card choices and give a list. The next article will detail tactics and strategy.
I've benefited greatly from comments by Brandon Adams, Bryant Cook, Ari Lax, and others at mtgthesource.com. (Thanks, guys!)
There are many potential ways to build an Ad Nauseam deck. Some builds are five-color; others play only blue and black. You can play as many as seventeen lands or as few as thirteen. To beat Force of Will, you can play Orim's Chant, Duress, Xantid Swarm, or all three. You have many choices when it comes to how much and what kind of acceleration you want to play as well. It's also necessary to decide how many business spells, as well as which ones you want access to.
Let's start with the business spells.
It's Business Time
There are two kinds of business spells: bombs and tutors. Ad Nauseam is a bomb; if you resolve it at a healthy life total, you win. Infernal Tutor is, well, a tutor. You use it to get what you need.
Aside from Ad Nauseam, there are other bombs you might want access to. Ill-Gotten Gains is useful for increasing storm and mana and is particularly handy when your life total is too low to abuse Ad Nauseam. Ill-Gotten Gains is obviously a little loose against decks with counterspells, but you can usually set up an Ill-Gotten Gains pile to recur a Duress to break through their recursion if necessary.
Diminishing Returns is Timetwister for an extra U and a slight drawback. That's a pretty good deal; if you cast Returns with some mana floating, a fresh seven cards is usually good enough to win with.
Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens are the finishers for storm decks. Being able to kill without passing the turn makes Tendrils quite valuable, but situations where you can Empty for ten or more on turn 1 are not infrequent either.
However, the more bombs you pack into your deck, the more you dilute the power of Ad Nauseam. Further, as powerful as Tendrils, Empty, and Ill-Gotten Gains are, they're quite poor in multiples and in your opening hand. A main plan of relying on Diminishing Returns would necessitate more maindeck copies of Tendrils as well as Returns, so we're probably not going to want any Returns in the maindeck.
There are two stock configurations of business spells: Bryant Cook is an advocate of one Ad Nauseam, one Tendrils of Agony, and one Empty the Warrens, while Ari Lax prefers one Ad Nauseam, one Tendrils of Agony, and one Ill-Gotten Gains. Bryant's access to a maindeck Empty gives him some flexibility against blue decks and forces his opponents to focus their efforts on stunting his mana. Ari, on the other hand, is more willing to play a slightly longer game (using 'longer' loosely, since we're still talking about turn 3, here) and set up a lethal loop with Ill-Gotten Gains. I should also note that Ari doesn't play red in his lists, though if Ari wanted access to Empty he could easily splash for it.
Meanwhile, Brandon Adams observed that naturally drawing Ad Nauseam was extremely powerful, allowing for quick kills as well as giving you another way to outplay blue opponents who might start overvaluing your two-mana tutors. Naturally drawing Ill-Gotten Gains, Tendrils, or Empty is usually pretty bad. Brandon recommended I try a second Ad Nauseam, and it's excellent.
Decklist so far:
2 Ad Nauseam
1 Tendrils of Agony
The Fast and the Furious
When your game plan is 'get to five, six, seven, or even eight mana, then engage in shenanigans often involving life as a resource,' it's pretty important to, you know, make a lot of mana and to do it with the quickness. Unfortunately, there aren't very many one-shot acceleration effects that generate more than one mana. Dark Ritual is an obvious one, and while you can't use Lion's Eye Diamond to pay for a spell directly, you can play a tutor, then crack the Diamond, and use the mana from Diamond to play whatever you tutored for. Ritual and Diamond are on the team for sure, but what to supplement them with?
Lotus Petal and Chrome Mox are quite valuable; they serve as initial mana sources to cast your Rituals when you cast Ad Nauseam without any mana floating. Chrome Mox is also a permanent source of mana that is impervious to Wasteland, more than making up for the card disadvantage associated with it.
Rite of Flame and Cabal Ritual can both potentially generate more than one additional mana. Rite of Flame requires more Rites in the graveyard, while Cabal Ritual requires threshold. Let's take a quick look at both of these:
Getting multiple Rites post-Ad Nauseam won't be terribly difficult, but it's a lot more valuable to generate extra mana pre-Ad Nauseam. Theoretically, you can Infernal Tutor for a second Rite, but that's not terribly exciting. It is, however, convenient that Rite provides exactly enough red mana to Burning Wish for and then cast Empty the Warrens.
Cabal Ritual is an interesting option. You'd like to have threshold for every Cabal Ritual you cast, but achieving threshold before turn 3 is quite difficult. However, you can use fetchlands, cantrips, and Duress effects to ensure threshold on turn 3 without a whole lot of effort. Exceptionally aggressive decks might take a pretty big chunk out of your life total by turn 3, but Cabal Ritual conveniently provides plenty of mana to fuel Ill-Gotten Gains loops if your life total makes Ad Nauseam impractical. However, getting to threshold requires a pretty serious commitment from the rest of your deck. You have to play many more fetchlands than other Tendrils lists; you're basically obligated to use Duress and Thoughtseize for your protection package, and you probably need to run Preordain in your cantrip package to ensure that you can get as many cards into the bin as quickly as possible. This will likely come at the expense of some tutors.
Cabal Ritual and Rite of Flame are frequently competing for the same spot in a deck. However, without Rite of Flame, plans involving Burning Wish quickly become less attractive. Essentially, Rite of Flame doesn't require you to jump through nearly as many hoops as Cabal Ritual does, so Rite of Flame it is:
Manipulation and Tutoring
The interaction between Infernal Tutor and Lion's Eye Diamond is 'cute.' You can respond to Infernal Tutor by activating Lion's Eye Diamond and becoming hellbent, finding whatever card you want with Infernal. You can also use the Tutor to double up on mana acceleration or even protection spells if you're looking to grind out a long game. Ad Nauseam is basically a one-card combo by itself, but most Tendrils decks could be fairly described as being a two-card combo: Infernal Tutor and Lion's Eye Diamond. Infernal Tutor is the easiest way to set up a kill, either by finding Ad Nauseam or by setting up a chain of Tutors ending in Tendrils of Agony. Four Infernals are a must.
However, it's tough to just rely on four Infernal Tutors and two Ad Nauseams to kill people. Cantrips certainly help to dig for vital combo pieces, though. The best cantrips in Legacy are Brainstorm, Ponder, and Preordain. Brainstorm doesn't dig for missing pieces quite as well as Ponder, but Brainstorm's ability to sculpt one's hand when combined with fetchlands makes it invaluable.
The scry on Preordain is certainly useful, but you'd always want to run four Brainstorms, 4 Ponders before playing your first Preordain. However, you also want to be winning on turn 2 or 3, so you can't just keep cantripping until you find one of your five or six business spells in the same way that Threshold decks can use their cantrips to keep up a stream of threats. It would be nice to just have more powerful bombs rather than more cantrips.
There are a few options. Whenever you cast Doomsday, you'll probably win immediately; if you don't, you'll certainly win if you get another turn. However, most Doomsday piles require an Ill-Gotten Gains in the maindeck, and many of them also require Meditate. All of the Doomsday combo pieces also reduce the power of Ad Nauseam.
There are other tutors available. Grim Tutor is one option. The biggest problem with Grim Tutor is that it costs three. The difference between casting Ad Nauseam with no mana floating as opposed to one mana is rather significant in terms of how much damage you take from Ad Nauseam, and the life loss from Grim Tutor itself also has to be factored in. It can also be hard to generate enough black mana for Grim Tutor into Ad Nauseam, whereas Dark Ritual can pay for both Infernal and Ad Nauseam. The fact that Grim Tutor costs three also makes it difficult to set up a turn 2 Tutor into a turn 3 kill.
Lim-Dul's Vault is a reasonable way to set up a turn 3 kill, but it's pretty difficult to use Vault if you want to be winning on turn 2. The loss of a card is also pretty relevant when you're trying to grind down a control player.
Burning Wish, however, is essentially a two-mana tutor that requires you to give up some portion of your sideboard for the purposes of Burning Wish. You can't Burning Wish for Ad Nauseam, but you can Burning Wish for the other bombs discussed earlier (Tendrils of Agony, Empty the Warrens, Ill-Gotten Gains, Diminishing Returns) when the need for them comes up. This allows access to plays like a fast Empty the Warrens or an Ill-Gotten Gains loop without having to clutter up your maindeck with Empty or Gains. Burning Wish also acts as a pseudo-replacement for Mystical Tutor in that you can also Wish for answers to hate cards. The loss of sideboard space is relevant, but isn't the end of the world because you can't really board out too many cards in any matchup anyway.
Wrap It Up
Some people spoil all the fun. These types of people can frequently be found casting Force of Will on Ad Nauseam. There are actually several ways to go about foiling these blue mages, but it's first useful to consider the sorts of counters you'll need to beat.
In the first category are the hard counters. Force of Will, Counterspell, and so on. These are cards that you actively need to strip from your opponent's hand before casting your big spell, or otherwise counter with Pyroblast, Orim's Chant, etc. Spell Snare is almost as good as a hard counter unless you're not relying on Infernal Tutor or Burning Wish.
The second category just consists of taxing counters that allow you to pay more mana to resolve your spell. Cursecatcher, Daze, and Spell Pierce are the most notorious examples. You can beat these sorts of counters fairly easily just by generating excess mana. Most blue decks don't have enough of a clock to really punish you for waiting a few turns to beat a Spell Pierce and a Daze.
You also have to worry about Counterbalance, although a lone Counterbalance without a Top isn't particularly difficult to beat most of the time. Stifle also deserves some mention, though Stifle is typically more powerful when used against your fetchlands than your Tendrils; you can easily find a Duress or something post-Ad Nauseam to fight Stifle.
(It's worth noting that because most blue decks can only interact with Tendrils via permission, they'll frequently mulligan to a counterspell, and if you strip their counter with Duress, the rest of their hand is likely to be pretty bad.)
There are a few different countermeasures you can take to fight these issues. Duress and Thoughtseize are quite powerful for fighting counterspells, although you'll want to avoid your opponent hiding their best cards with Brainstorm if you're not intending to go off that turn. Thoughtseize can snag hate cards such as Gaddock Teeg, but it's fairly rare that you lose a game because you had Duress instead of Thoughtseize when your opponent had Gaddock Teeg. Inquisition of Kozilek is quite a bit weaker due to its inability to take Force of Will, though if you max out on Duress and Thoughtseize, Inquisition might be a valid choice.
Orim's Chant and Silence are alternative options to discard and are particularly valuable when you're trying to establish an Ill-Gotten Gains loop against an opponent with Force of Will. However, if you Chant an opponent, and they Spell Pierce your Chant, you might have problems casting all of your Rituals. If you start with your Rituals, though, your opponent can just use their counters on your Rituals, and your Chant will be useless.
Pyroblast is another option; you can just use Pyroblast to counter back when the other guy shows you Force of Will. However, Pyroblast doesn't play well at all with Infernal Tutor, since it's basically impossible to get hellbent while using Pyroblast for defense. Pyroblast also doesn't help when you're trying to use Lion's Eye Diamond, because you'll have to crack the Diamond and discard your Pyroblast before seeing if your opponent wants to counter your Wish or Tutor. Pyroblast is effective at stopping Counterbalance, but that's about it.
Xantid Swarm is an alternative to the Chant plan. Swarm is basically a Chant with suspend and a vulnerability to Swords to Plowshares. You don't have to tie up any mana in Swarm on the turn you're going off. Swarm is particularly powerful against Merfolk and Survival, because those decks typically can't remove a Swarm and can only counter it with Daze and Force of Will. Swarm is not the worst against Counterbalance, though it can be frustrating when it gets hit by Plow. Swarm can also buy some life as a chump blocker against Zoo. Given how popular Survival and Merfolk decks are lately, I feel that four Xantid Swarms are pretty mandatory. However, just four Swarms aren't going to be enough. Given that I want to play fourteen lands (for reasons outlined below), that leaves three more slots for protection spells.
As I mentioned above, I'm not wild about Orim's Chant, Silence, or Pyroblast. That leaves me to choose between Duress and Thoughtseize. The life loss from Thoughtseize is well worth it when you take a Zoo player's only one drop (or a Gaddock Teeg), but it actually starts to add up a bit against decks like Merfolk, where you might want to cast multiple Thoughtseizes against a fairly fast clock. Duress it is.
Casting Spells For Fun and Profit
So the plan is to cast green, red, black, and blue spells on the road to victory. There are a bunch of dual land configurations that could be used to support this plan, but it's important to recognize that Tendrils is frequently going to set up the combo turn with cantrips, so as many lands as possible should produce blue.
It's also important to acknowledge the existence of Wasteland. Lotus Petal and Chrome Mox can be used to generate colored mana when going off, but it's important that you not get hit by Wasteland while casting your setup spells. Therefore, a basic Island and a Swamp are going to be necessary. There's also not a lot of point in having basics in your deck if you can't routinely access them, so about seven to nine fetchlands will probably be necessary. Polluted Delta will be one of the fetchlands for sure.
As for the dual lands, Underground Sea, Volcanic Island, Badlands, and Tropical Island allow the easiest access to early blue and green mana while having access to red and black when going off. Badlands lets you cast Duress on turn 1 and Rite of Flame on 2. With this configuration of dual lands, the only blue fetchland that can get all of them is Scalding Tarn, so the mana base will be:
What Do You Mean, "Game Two?"
For a deck with Wishes, nailing down the sideboard slots devoted to Wish is a good first step. Tendrils of Agony and Empty the Warrens are mandatory Wish targets; Tendrils as a finisher and Empty as something to do when you can make six mana and six storm on turn 1. Diminishing Returns is excellent when you have excess mana and storm, but you can't profitably Empty the Warrens. Usually you'll want to have UB floating when you cast Returns, but, obviously, if you don't have any other options, sometimes you have to cast it floating nothing and hope things go your way.
Having Ill-Gotten Gains in the sideboard allows you to kill without exposing your life total to Ad Nauseam if you have either Infernal Tutor plus Burning Wish or two Wishes. Wish for Ill-Gotten Gains, cast Ill-Gotten Gains, get back mana, mana, and either Wish or Tutor, cast the mana, and go get Tendrils. Usually you'll need a Diamond or two Rituals to fuel the full loop (which costs twelve mana) but you can also just jam a bunch of mana pre-Gains as well.
Other potential Burning Wish targets are utility spells and removal spells. A lot of people are going to have hate-bears after boarding. Usually, they'll have Ethersworn Canonist, Gaddock Teeg, or both. To answer these, you can play either Maelstrom Pulse, Deathmark, Grapeshot, or Pyroclasm. Deathmark is the most mana efficient. Maelstrom Pulse is the most versatile. Pyroclasm is one of the only cards that can beat in-play Teeg next to Canonist. However, needing to beat Canonist and Teeg simultaneously is fairly rare and is still doable with Grapeshot if you draw enough artifact mana. The ability to cast a short Tendrils for fourteen or so and win a few turns with Grapeshot is relevant more often than you'd think, particularly when Diminishing Returns gets involved. Grapeshot also gets around Runed Halo and is a nice way to rub it in if you're playing a friend :B.
To beat artifacts and enchantments, you can run Pulverize and Reverent Silence. Pulverize is basically always more mana-efficient than Shattering Spree, especially if you need to remove multiple lock pieces, and Reverent Silence allows you to fight Counterbalance quite effectively. Beyond those two cards, the only other piece of removal you might want is Eye of Nowhere as a sort of catchall. However, the only problem that Eye of Nowhere solves that Pulverize and Reverent Silence do not is an Iona set to black, which isn't something one has to deal with too often these days. When Reanimator could jam a turn 2 Iona, that was an issue, but on turn 4 out of a Survival deck? They should be dead by then.
So far, we've got:
Leaving all of seven actual sideboard slots. In general, you can board out a mana source if your opponent isn't pressuring your mana base, and you can also trim a couple copies of Ponder. If you have a protection spell in the maindeck that isn't well suited for the matchup (e.g. Xantid Swarm vs. Zoo) you can board those out as well. Usually, this leaves you with three to seven cards that you can board in for any given matchup.
Usually, you'll want to be boarding in answers to hate cards. The most popular hate cards are Chalice of the Void, Mindbreak Trap, and various two-mana permanents such as Gaddock Teeg, Ethersworn Canonist, Runed Halo, and so on.
To remove permanents from play, you can usually choose from Chain of Vapor, Echoing Truth, Krosan Grip, and Wipe Away. Grip can't remove Gaddock Teeg, which is a fairly significant liability. The split second on Wipe Away is really only useful against Counterbalance, but it's fairly trivial for a Counterbalance opponent to float a three to stop Wipe; attacking Counterbalance with discard or Wish for Reverent Silence is much higher percentage. Echoing Truth and Chain of Vapor are the remaining options, but the main time there's a difference between the two is when Chalice of the Void is in play set to one counter. However there are several other factors to consider: a Chalice at one is a lot easier to beat than a Chalice at zero. An opponent who holds a Chalice on turn 1 to play it for one on turn 2 is vulnerable to Duress, and therefore more likely to play it for zero. It is also fairly easy to remove a Chalice at one with Wish for Pulverize. Lastly, it's frequently relevant that Chain of Vapor costs one when you are removing a two-mana hate card on the draw with the intention of winning on turn 2. Therefore, Chain of Vapor is superior.
You can also go after Teeg, Canonist, Trap, etc. preemptively by boarding in more copies of Thoughtseize. Aside from Chalice almost every permanent that people hate Tendrils out with costs two, so you'll always have a shot to nab hate cards with Duress or Thoughtseize. Duress and Thoughtseize are also the only way to fight Mindbreak Trap outside of figuring out a way to make Ad Nauseam your second spell of the turn. Having the full four Thoughtseizes in the board is strong against both control and aggro decks.
(It's worth noting that you could theoretically sideboard a Doomsday package with Shelldock Isle and Emrakul, the Aeons Torn if you wanted to increase your percentage against Counterbalance, but that plan eats up a ton of sideboard slots and isn't that much better than simply bringing in more Thoughtseizes.)
I'm a pretty big advocate of preparing for mirror matches. I play decks that give me the highest chance of winning the tournament, and I assume that everyone else does the same. I also assume that I'm not the only person who recognizes when a deck is powerful, and that being ready for the mirror is important. In most Tendrils mirror matches, you and your opponent will be tearing each other's hands apart with discard. If either of you have Orim's Chant or Silence, you'll wait until your opponent has jacked mana and storm and Chant him at an inopportune moment. Whoever draws more disruption is a heavy favorite, so you basically just want an endless stream of cards. You can get this quite easily with Dark Confidant.
At this point, it's mostly a matter of finalizing the numbers. Eight Wish targets, plus three more Thoughtseizes, leave four slots to fill with Dark Confidant and Chain of Vapor. As mentioned above, it's hard to board out too many cards, and after boarding in four Thoughtseizes and two Chains against aggressive decks, there's not much room for a third Chain. Therefore, the split is two Chain, two Dark Confidants, and a final list of:
Tendrils is an absurdly powerful deck with favorable matchups against Survival, Merfolk, Zoo, and basically every non-Counterbalance deck running around the StarCityGames.com Opens. I highly recommend it for the upcoming 2011 StarCityGames.com Open Series.
Next week: General tactics and in-depth strategy for major matchups.
max dot mccall at gmail dot com